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Quebec fiery train crash death toll at 50

LAC-MÉGANTIC, Quebec -- Canadian officials told distraught families Wednesday that 30 people still missing after the fiery crash of a runaway oil train are all presumed dead.

That would put the death toll from Saturday's derailment and explosions in this lakeside town at 50, including 20 bodies found.

"Now we are standing here with a number of 50 persons that we are considering most probably dead in this tragedy," said Quebec police Insp. Michel Forget, following a meeting with families of the dead and missing.

"We informed them of the potential loss of their loved ones," Forget said. "You have to understand that it's a very emotional moment, and our thoughts are with these families."

Hours before that meeting, the head of the U.S. railway company whose train crashed made his first visit to Lac-Mégantic since the disaster, amid jeers from residents and criticism from politicians, including Quebec Premier Pauline Marois.

Reversing the company's defense of its employees' actions, the rail chief blamed the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly before the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train hurtled down a seven-mile incline, derailed and ignited. All but one of the 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.

Edward Burkhardt, president and chief executive of parent company Rail World Inc., said the engineer had been suspended without pay and was under "police control."

Quebec police are pursuing a wide-ranging criminal investigation, extending to the possibilities of criminal negligence and some sort of tampering with the train before the crash.

Only one of the bodies found so far has been formally identified, said Genevieve Guilbault of the coroner's office. She did not release the name but said the next of kin had been notified. She described efforts to identify the other remains as "very long and arduous work" -- a consequence of the fire's intensity.

Police Sgt. Benoit Richard said investigators spoke with Burkhardt during his visit but did not elaborate.

Burkhardt singled out the engineer, whom he did not name. "We think he applied some hand brakes, but the question is, did he apply enough of them?" he said. "He said he applied 11 hand brakes. . . . Initially we believed him, but now we don't."

Burkhardt said he delayed his visit in order to deal with the crisis from his office in Chicago. He defended the practice of leaving trains unmanned, as was the case when the train rolled away. Canadian transportation department officials have said there are no regulations against it.

Resident Raymond Lafontaine is believed to have lost a son, two daughters-in-law and an employee in the disaster. "That man, I feel pity for him," he said as Burkhardt spoke. "Maybe some who know him properly may think he's the greatest guy in the world, but with his actions, the wait that took place, it doesn't look good."

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